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Japanese graves and cemeteries are a bit different from what most westerners are used to. Japanese gravestones are just big blocks in a cemetery, sometimes with additional blocks, or like holders for things, and a bunch of other strange stuff that I never really understood or took the time to look into.

I always wondered – what does all of this signify? Is there something buried underneath them? Do they channel psychic energy to allow one to communicate with the dead? Well in today’s post, we’re going to figure that all out. So pack your bags, kids – we’re going on an adventure.

It All Starts With Cremation

Compared to the majority of western nations, Japan usually cremates their dead instead of putting them in the ground as they were (to prepare for the zombie apocalypse, no doubt). Japan has one of the highest cremation rates in the world, reporting a cremation rate of 99.85% in 2008 (compared to the USA at ~40%).

Since cremated remains end up much smaller in size than the usual corpse, they can be shared between surviving relatives. Have you ever tried sharing a corpse before? It’s not pretty. Those who don’t wish to keep the ashes at home must buy an expensive plot of land and have a grave erected at further expense. Or they can just dump the ashes out, but that’s just plain rude. Whereas many old graves in Japan are simply memorial stones, the modern grave is more geared towards the storage of ashes.

In a Japanese style cremation, the coffin is placed on a tray in the crematorium. The family then witnesses the sliding of the body into the cremation chamber, scarring small children for life. The cremation time varies based on the size of the body, so the family leaves and then returns once the cremation has been completed. Apparently it takes about an hour and a half to cremate an adult body, 45 minutes for a child, and 15 minutes for a stillborn. Not something I really want to be thinking about, but if you were curious, there you go.

After the appropriate time, the relatives go back and pick the bones out of the ashes and transfer them to an urn using large chopsticks or metal picks. Sometimes, two relatives will hold the same bone at the same time with their chopsticks in order to move it. This is the only time in Japan when it is proper for two people to hold the same item at the same time with chopsticks.

At all other times, two people holding anything with chopsticks at the same time will remind everyone of the funeral of a close relative causing everyone to break down and cry for hours on end. This is considered a major social faux pas in Japan. Bad baka gaijin, bad!

To ensure the eternal comfort of the deceased, the bones of the feet are placed first, and the bones of the head placed last. Wouldn’t wanna be upside-down for all eternity, now would ya?

In some cases, the ashes may be divided among more than one urn. For example, some ashes will go to a family grave, some to the temple or a company grave, and some might even go into outer space!

Many companies have graves in the largest graveyard in Japan, Okunoin. These graves are for former company employees and their relatives, and often feature gravestones that are related to the companies’ business. For example, the coffee company, UCC, provides a gravestone in the shape of a coffee cup.

The Typical Japanese Grave

[yframe url=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XxDtf7pJe_w’]

A typical Japanese grave is usually a family grave consisting of a stone monument with a place for flowers, a place for incense, water in front of the monument, and a chamber or crypt underneath for the ashes. You’ll often see sprigs of Japanese star anise in the vases. At the bottom is a sealed chamber for the ashes which are held in ceramic pots. The front of the stone pillar generally states what family the grave belongs to.

The names of the family members are sometimes carved all at once on one side of the topmost stone, and the names of those still living are colored red. The red is then removed when that person dies. The reason for this is largely economical with it being cheaper to have the names all carved on at the same time, however this practice is less frequent these days.

But that doesn’t make it any less creepy. I wouldn’t prefer to have my name on a grave, especially in red letters, making it stand out and everything. It can also be seen as a sign that those left behind are waiting to follow their family member (spouse, etc) into the grave. Romantic or creepy? You be the judge.

Other grave features include a family crest, and many graves also have stone lanterns in front of them. Some may have a post box where you can leave your business card to show that you’ve paid your respects in case anyone is keeping tabs on you, and there might even be a stone slab with a genealogy of the family carved on it too.

Fun Facts and the Future of Japanese Graves

Gravestones can also be used to judge the relative intensity of earthquakes. If the topmost stone has fallen off and is lying broken in pieces, you’ll know it must’ve been a big one. Although if you were around the area when the earthquake happened, I’m sure you’d already know that.

The high prices of funeral plots, costing on average ¥2,000,000 (~$24,000), have led to a new service of “Grave Apartments”, where a locker-sized grave can be purchased for about ¥400,000 (~$5,000). Some of these may even include a touch screen showing a picture of the deceased, messages, a family tree, and other information. Behold! The graves of the future.

Expanding on this idea, a Japanese gravestone maker has developed gravestones with bar codes embedded in them. When visitors come to the site of their dead relative, they can take a picture of the tag with their cell phone, and it’ll show all the details of the deceased’s death and also logs how many times the tag was scanned, so visitors know when other family members last visited the grave site.

[yframe url=’http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wz-kaPgCtr8′]

These are also other places where the cremated remains of your loved ones are stored in a fancy sealed box kept in an underground vault from the future. When you wish to access the box, you scan an RFID card which then tells the system to bring up your box and place it in the prayer area for you to pay your respects.

There have also been a number of cases where the ashes of deceased persons have been stolen from graves for various reasons. The ashes of famous cartoonist Machiko Hasegawa and of the wife of real estate chairman Takichi Hayasaka were stolen for ransom.

Photo by EvinDC

The ashes of famous novelist Yukio Mishima were stolen in 1971 and the ashes of novelist Naoya Shiga were stolen in 1980. The ashes of the wife of the baseball player Sadaharu Oh went missing in December 2002. And this is one downside of cremation – the remains are much easier to pilfer.

Also, if all this postmortem ceremonial stuff interests you, Hashi and I recommend you check out the movie Departures, trailer here. It won a crapton of awards, including the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. You’ll cry at least four times. Hashi did, and he’s the manliest man I know.


So tell me, did you learn something today? What do you think about these Japanese style graves as compared to what you’re used to in your home country? What about this new direction that Japanese graves are moving in? What kind of grave do you want for yourself? Let us know in the comments!


Sites Referenced:
The Japan Tourist Blog: Understanding Japanese Cemeteries
Wikipedia: Japanese Funerals

  • spasm

    I don’t think I’d be creeped out about the red letters, it’s kind of the way it is. I think it’s pretty beautiful in a way, but yes very ominous.

  • http://espo.in/ Jonas

    Kinda odd to log visits for other people to see… That’s like, really private.

  • Mescale

    Its not that different to what happens these days in England. Burying people takes up a lot of land, and its a real hassle to get rid of grave yards if you ever want to use the land again, as far as cost goes its far more expensive to bury a body, so most dead people I know got cremated.

    Because of the costs fancy families would often (in the past and probably in the present) have family plots, or vaults instead of individual graves, and as well to save money that would mean planning ahead with engraving etc.

    I think my family planned ahead with my grandmothers stone which is really rather small, and has two pots for flowers in a little stone garden, and left room for my granddad to be etched below, but he’s really hanging on in there despite having lost his marbles.

    I wonder, you know, is it the Japanese that are weird, or is it, the Americans who are? Like seriously!

    Weirdos.

  • Xaromir

    I think it’s rather cool, especially the splitting up the ashes part. People are to complex to sufficiently rest in just one place. I know that it doesn’t help much in death, but it may provide comfort in life, and help cope with mortality, which is a great thing. There is enough time for death when it’s here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Alexandra-Franco/896075564 Alexandra Franco

    Well, I learned Hashi is the manliest man you know (shocker) XD. But besides that, I think Japan has a very neat way of laying people to rest; saves up space. Although its downside would be the victims of violent crimes, dont know their laws for those, but I’m guessing exhumation of bodies for further investigations are out of the equation.

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    “Hmm. The victim appears to have been burned to death. Case closed!”

  • Tora.Silver

    So THAT’S what happened to you after you devalued your apartment because you didn’t understand KY…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001535919021 Heather Stewart

    Departures is probably my favorite Japanese language movie. I cried a lot, it was beautiful. I decided that when I die, I’ll be cremated Japanese-style, wearing my Aikido hakama and doh gi! :D

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    Sudden title change? I’m not saying it was ghosts, but…

  • neu

    Departures was INCREDIBLE. Seriously people, watch it.

  • Kevin Zona

    As said by Detective Mori-san, “satsujin jiken~!”

  • sasha

    Thanks for an interesting post. One thing you didn’t cover are those tall wooden planks that are standing behind some gravestones (like giant popsicle sticks). They have writing on them; I guess they are names of additional people buried there, but I am not sure. Do you know?

  • http://www.facebook.com/philipp.kirsch.940 Philipp Kirsch

    I read
    The family then witnesses the SLICING of the body into the cremation chamber
    at first

    ._.

  • Rashmi

    I watched Departures. It was wonderful. Fascinating how the dead body is prepared before being cremated.
    In India, the Hindus cremate their dead, but we don’t need plots to store the urns. We just set them afloat the Ganga (or the sea or any flowing water body).

  • Pepper_the_Sgt

    I’ve been to Okunoin! The parallels of Kobo Daishi to Jesus are kind of uncanny. It’s believed that Kobo Daishi (a famous monk) was buried in Okunoin, and it’s believed that he will one day rise from the grave. When he does, he will resurrect believers. So, people want to be buried close to him and be right there with him when it happens. That’s my understanding of it anyway.

    Also, the idea of companies with graves seems hilarious to me. At a stretch, I could kind of see a very small tight-knit company being buried together, but major corporations are just so impersonal. Not that that’s bad, it’s just funny that they’d be involved in something as personal as a grave, in my opinion. I’ve got a picture from Okunoin of what looks a western tombstone, but it has “Panasonic Corporation” engraved in it. It makes me chuckle.

  • Pepper_the_Sgt

    Yeah, I’m curious about those, too. When I visited Okunoin, they were all over the place.

  • Ruben

    I knew Japan has a very big cremeation rate, but that isn’t a lot information compared to what else happens in Japan when someone dies. Picking the bones out of the ashes !?
    That would never happen in Europe (Belgium) !
    I think a Japanese style “goodbye” is very good when you want to help in the whole proces, big advantage over Western style cremations. For some peole its helpfull to get over it.
    However: Seriously ! Some things must really scare sensitive people or Japanese children.
    I read it’s also common in Japan to have a night / day of prayer with the death body !

  • John

    To my understanding, they’re called sotoba and they mark the grave (like a tombstone) and are a very simplified representation of stupa, which is a Buddhist monument. I don’t think they mean that there’s a body buried there, I think it’s more like a memorial, but I’m not positive.

  • besterthenyou

    That looked really beautiful, with the family, and the placing of the food. I interpret it as an offering. Dead people gotta eat, ya know?

  • http://www.facebook.com/albert.martino.3 Albert Martino

    i have gone to a catholic funeral in tokyo followed by a cremation. i also visited cemeteries and saw the r. ed lettering but could not figure out the meaning. now i know. what you have failed to write about is what happens when a foreigner dies in japan and the body is to be shipped back to their home country. what a procedure. better to dump them by the roadside and let trash removal take care of it rather than pay the huge costs associated with a foreigner’s death.

  • http://www.facebook.com/albert.martino.3 Albert Martino

    we are the weird.

  • DAVIDPD

    I am pretty sure I would not want to pick the bones of my parent(s) out of a pile of ashes. Of that I am sure.

  • http://twitter.com/helios_396 helios

    This reminds me to my professor’s story about the same topic. So apparently the business of taking care of the dead in Japan is a very costly one, and I don’t mean the high price of the funeral plots, I’m talking about the services that needs to be done to the smallest details. Example: If the person dies at home, there will be people from the company coming to fetch the body. And usually they wear gloves to handle the body. This treatment might disturb some family members because it’s sort of implies that the body is “dirty/disgusting”. So they request for a service where the people are willing to actually touch the body with bare hands, but of course it is more expensive. I’m kind of amazed that such a trivial thing can be quite a significant problem in Japan.

  • John

    lol

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.alexander.980 Joel Alexander

    I’ve been to Okunoin also. Some of those company graves are ridiculously gaudy. Even corny…

  • Kate

    This was hilariously written. I want to scar small children when I die :)

    I heard on a documentary once aaaages ago that in some areas in Japan, they used to let a recently-deceased body lie around for 3 days before cremation and burial. Apparently this was because puffer-fish poison can cause a comatose paralysis for around 3 days, and then the person can sometimes wake up (often with brain damage, but still), and you wouldn’t want to cremate someone who wasn’t quite dead yet, now would you. The whole voodoo-zombie legend thing apparently has a similar origin.

    I’ve always wondered if this was apocryphal.

  • Kate

    I don’t know… It reminds me of one of those guest-books that they used to have at funeral parlours (and still have at a lot of them, come to think of it). You’d sign it before going in. Anyone who enters after you can see that you’ve been there. No big deal.

    It doesn’t matter if someone knows you went to pay respects at a grave or not. Although I like to imagine it being a contrived plot-point of some bizarre murder film. You know, “he didn’t visit his mother’s grave once in 8 years, showing conclusively he felt guilty over murdering her!” or, “he visited this gave every week since the person died, but had no official connection with them… and the death was mysterious… hmm. Call in our finest detective and a bumbling rookie to team up and provide humerous dialogue throughout!”

  • Kate

    The cremation thing is quite practical for a country like Japan. But picking the bones out makes me wonder: is this because cremation isn’t good enough to burn them up completely? In which case, in other countries, when they cremate dead people, is there some guy I don’t know about going through the ash and taking the bones out? Or do they use a huge sieve? I can see that getting family members to do it, however unpleasant it might seem at first, is much more personal and affectionate than letting the new apprentice “Jim” from down the road do it without any care or emotion after everyone’s gone home. Plus I don’t trust Jim. He might spit in them, or mix up the ashes with some other guy’s. He’s got a whole lot less reason to care. It’s much more practical (and respectful) to let people who cared for the dead guy to do it, I guess.

    Or is it just the traditional cremation that couldn’t deal with bones? Can modern cremation handle them? Is it all a matter of them sticking to a habit that is no longer necessary?

    I like this article. I never thought I’d wonder about this kind of stuff, nor imagine how a huge crematorium sieve might work.

  • Izzie

    I also learned that uneven/odd chopsticks are used for passing around the bones among loved ones, chopsticks stuck in rice are an offering to the dead and some very beautiful envelops are specifically for funeral condolence money to the family… Don’t be a baka gaijin! Thanks for the refresher course!

  • John

    Glad you enjoyed it!

  • V

    The Sotoba are the wooden tablets that contain the posthumous names of the family’s deceased. They’re similar to the tablets made for the family shrine (if they have one) but not as elaborate.

    The posthumous names are written in kanji but read in sanskrit as well so most Japanese nationals aren’t able to read their family’s posthumous names. The grave markers are not so much to hold the remains of the deceased but a place for the living to gather at which is why we generally have a family’s gravestone rather than individual ones. Traditional families will keep the remains in a jar within a silk pouch with Buddhist charms in their family shrine (which is kept by the eldest male heir, chounan).

    Going back to the posthumous names, it’s not unusual for these to be more expensive than the graves themselves. Most of the times, each kanji will cost a few hundred thousand yen. Modern Japanese thought considers the posthumous name a waste of money but they’re actually a reflection of the amount of spiritual training, shugyou, the deceased has gone through in life. For each time you commit and go through shugyou, you are entitled to an extra kanji character added to your posthumous name by that Buddhist sect if the monk(s) believe you have achieved another step towards enlightenment. The payment system was employed for the old lords and court to achieve the same status and has somehow lasted this long. Essentially, a monk can only make a kaimyou, the posthumous name, that is as long as the amount of spiritual training they, themselves, have achieved. So paying really is an appreciation of their efforts too.

    Other things I’ve read in other comments but feel like writing here are:

    The cremation period is shorter in Japan than it is in other countries. When Japanese do cremations in other countries, a lot of crematoriums are familiar with the Japanese customs and know to remove the remains before the bones become ash as well.

    Prior to the funeral, we have what’s called an Otsuya. Essentially, it’s a vigil that’s left behind from tradition. The family stay with the deceased for a night and a bowl of rice is prepared for the deceased with their two chopsticks stuck upright. Traditionally, death was a pretty hit-and-miss business and this was to prevent the cremation of someone who was, say, just unconscious. Once the otsuya is complete, the deceased’s chopsticks are then broken so no one is able to use them again (at home, most people have their own chopsticks). This is why sticking your chopsticks into food and leaving it there is a faux pas as well.
    Side note: puffer fish poison causes paralysis and then full cardiac arrest. The effects are relatively quick so if they don’t wake up in 1 day, they won’t be waking up in 3 unless the T-Virus has made its rounds.

  • John

    Wow, thanks for sharing all this additional knowledge!

  • http://www.facebook.com/simon.france Simon France

    What a brilliantly interesting post.

  • FoxiBiri

    I used to live near Gokokuji temple, and there’s a pretty sizable cemetery attached to it. I decided to check it out one day and wound up taking tons of pictures of cats. There were so many cats!! I guess they live there and eat the offerings or something. I deno, if I was dead I hope that cats would eat my offerings xD I mean, what really happens to them after somebody leaves them there?
    On another occasion I dropped by Gokokuji to find the temple itself crawling with cats, and just as I was about to run to Daiso and pick up some cheap cat food for the friendly kitty sitting on my lap, a monk started ringing a bell and all the cats swarmed over. I used to worry about the stray cats in Tokyo, but I don’t worry as much anymore now that I know monks feed them x3
    Anyway, one of my housemates told me it was faux pau for a gaijin to visit and especially take pictures in a Japanese cemetery. Does anyone know if that’s true? Cause I think that’s pretty ridiculous >.>

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    And it’s better they eat something fresh than something flesh.

  • Sasha

    Thanks for the info, but um..Sanskit?! O.O via Buddhism? Wow, I had no idea!

  • Carol Matsubara

    ‘Traditional families will keep the remains in a jar within a silk pouch
    with Buddhist charms in their family shrine (which is kept by the eldest
    male heir, chounan).’

    The remains in the little jar are usually just the skullcap and hyoid bone, in our area…does that differ with region, or sect? Our local temple has a dedicated hall where you can put the smaller container containing the two bones, and they pray for the deceased in perpetuity.

    The sotoba are to mark the milestones of the deceased’s journey in the afterlife. 49 days, 100 days, isshuuki (one year), 3, 7, 13, 17, 25, 33 and 50 years after the death. Every time you have a memorial service you go to the local shop and buy one of the right length for that service, bring it to the temple and they inscribe it and bring it with them to the service. They are supposed to be brought back to the temple to be burned after a while, but a lot of people don’t bother. Sometimes the priests will offer to take the older ones with them when they go back to the temple after a service.

  • V

    Most of the sutras are in sanskrit but written in kanji as well… although I suppose they’d be in the Japanese syllables.

  • V

    “The remains in the little jar are usually just the skullcap and hyoid
    bone, in our area…does that differ with region, or sect? Our local
    temple has a dedicated hall where you can put the smaller container
    containing the two bones, and they pray for the deceased in perpetuity.”

    I believe it differs very slightly between the sects (which are fairly regional). The main branch of my family line’s moved quite a far away from our temple so our other members are looking after the graves while we hold onto the obutsudan shrine. I believe a lot of people are getting the temples to do the daily services for their family shrines, since it’s a lot less effort.
    Every morning starts with cleaning the shrine, changing the water/tea offerings and then burning incense. Before we eat, we change the food offerings and burn incense again. I think people are starting to find it too tedious for their busy lives and also kind of expensive to maintain.

    I remember my grandfather would write the names of his close relatives that had passed on onto tablets (I also remember he had really lovely writing) and take them to the temple every month. Arguably the most dedicated non-monk/priest that I have ever known.

  • Carol Matsubara

    I see, thank you! DH’s family is Shingonshu, and no one has any remains in the home beyond the 100 days, when the small urn is taken to the temple.
    We have the Butsudan, and are only 45 minutes away from the temple and cemetery so we take care of both. I dust all around, and change the water and leave fruit or sweets and incense in the morning and do the rice at night, the only time we eat rice (the priest said that’s fine) . Since I married into the family three members have passed and I try to buy their favorite sweets and things for the Butsudan, and sometimes cook their favorite foods like hijiki or the first food of the season like matsutake gohan. They get the first of any seasonal food. It’s a nice way to remember loved ones, I have lost both my parents in the past few years and of course there is nothing comparable in my culture. Mourning seems to end so suddenly.

  • http://zoomingjapan.com/ zoomingjapan

    Very interesting.
    Although I’m in Japan for many years now there are still things like that where I know so little about. All those details you won’t ever experience unless you marry into a Japanese family.

    Thanks for sharing.

    I find the company graves totally creepy! :/

  • http://www.facebook.com/lovebiscuit Taylor Menke

    Ah, Departures! Such a great film. :)

  • Julia Wheeler

    My Obachan, born and raised in Japan, described the entire experience of lifting her mother’s bones from the ashes as unsettling and “creepy”. She may be an exception for a Japanese, but I can see why she might agree with you there.

  • Agnes Suk Ping

    It is an interesting article. bt,,i am curious… hw the family members know which one is feet bone, and which one is head bone?…

  • Karen

    From my understanding as the daughter of an embalmer/funeral director in Canada, there’s a ‘pulverizing’ process once the ‘cremains’ are checked with a magnet (this pulls out buttons, staples, melted bullets, etc). A machine basically whirrs up the cremains into what people would consider ashes. No clue if these are ever used in Japan. The weight of cremains is also apparently very consistent, and varies according to gender – for example, a woman’s cremains might weigh about 5 pounds, and a man’s 7 pounds (no idea what the real ratio might be).

  • Charlie Sommers

    My father died way back in the early 1960’s and my mother went ahead and had her name and birth date put on the headstone. When she died 40 years later at the age of 100 all that had to be done was add her date of death. When I visited my father’s grave I was never creeped out by the presence of her name. It just reminded me of my own mortality.

  • http://www.girlexpat.com Marie

    I know this is an old post, or older post, but I experienced this recently, my father-in-law passed away, but the cremation ceremony was a little bit too much for me to bear.

  • http://www.girlexpat.com Marie

    The person or director of the ceremony helps us choose the bones (the whole skeleton is just laying there in front of you).

  • http://www.girlexpat.com Marie

    I just experienced this with my father-in-law who passed, it was a bit much for me, but I held strong, my poor little nieces broke down.